Is that trip to the grocery store imperative? Are you clocking in at your job when you could work from home? These are questions Teton County residents should increasingly ask themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Jodie Pond, director of the Teton County Health Department.
Pond urged that self-examination on the heels of grim warnings from the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams—that this week Americans will witness loss and tragedy akin to 9/11 and Pearl Harbor.
Wyoming’s COVID-19 numbers are a far cry from the infection rates ravaging heavily populated American metropolises. In New York City, the American epicenter of the virus, 68,776 people have been diagnosed with coronavirus and 2,738 have died. By contrast, Wyoming has confirmed 212 cases and zero deaths. But health officials say this rural state is nowhere near its peak infection rate. Meanwhile, skyrocketing numbers in similar mountain locales that also draw millions of visitors and second homeowners—like Blaine County, Idaho, (home to Sun Valley)—suggest cases in Teton County could see a precipitous spike.
Already Pond is “very alarmed” by Teton County’s per capita numbers which “show the impact in Teton County is greater than anywhere in Wyoming.” Statewide, Teton County has the highest rate per capita of coronavirus, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. As of Monday, 40 patients had tested positive for COVID-19. That amounts to 172 cases per 100,000 residents. For comparison, Laramie County, leading the state with 45 cases, has a rate of 95 cases per 100,000 residents. Back in Blaine County, Idaho—population 22,024—there are now 423 cases per 100,000 people.
“That’s exactly why we are asking people to stay at home,” Pond said.
A Teton County health order is in effect banning people from gathering with anyone outside their household. Teton County public health officer Dr. Travis Riddell pushed for this measure in the absence of a statewide shelter-in-place mandate. It orders people to stay at home with exceptions such as buying groceries and exercising.
For those who must go out for an “essential” reason, Pond pointed to the CDC’s latest guidelines: wear a cloth mask. (And reserve coveted surgical and N95 masks for providers treating patients with coronavirus.) The CDC issued these recommendations on the heels of recent studies that show many people with coronavirus lack symptoms, and those who do develop symptoms can pass the virus along to others before they feel sick. In other words, wearing a mask protects the people around you.
But convincing Americans to wear masks in the name of public health could be an uphill battle, especially amid mixed messaging and resistance to such recommendations from the highest office of the land.
President Donald Trump says he won’t wear one. It would be uncomfortable when he meets with “presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens,” Trump said Friday during a White House news conference. That captures just some of the difficulty health officials face in shifting America’s individualistic culture during a moment that demands collective action.
Upending such values is precisely the idea behind a new campaign the Teton County Health Department is launching this week to encourage people to wear masks in public. The slogan, borrowed from the Czech Republic, is “I protect you, you protect me.” Because wearing a face mask won’t protect the person wearing it, Pond stressed. “It protects other people from you. And the only way it works is if everybody is doing it.”
The Wyoming Department of Health is also urging residents to wear masks. Those who do stand to help the cause in another way. As more folks cover their mouths with fabric masks, face shields, and ski buffs, “it will become more of a community norm,” Pond said.
The measures officials like Pond and Riddell are urging dial back to concerns about Jackson’s limited medical infrastructure, a worry that keeps them both up at night.
It keeps Dr. Paul Beaupre, CEO of St. John’s Health, awake too. So far, the 48-bed hospital has seen seven confirmed COVID-19 patients. (A possible eighth patient is in isolation there.) And one of those patients is in ICU but “does not require intubation at this time,” Beaupre said. If that person’s condition deteriorates, Beaupre said they will be transferred to another facility.
That’s what happened to five other COVID patients that required intubation—they are receiving treatment at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center. Beaupre said there are “two motivating factors” behind those transfers: conserving beds and personal protective equipment. Neither is an issue yet, especially with the hospital at its shoulder season capacity of roughly 30%. But St. John’s is anticipating a surge of COVID patients later this month. “So if and when the surge comes, we’ll have not only the beds that we need, but the personal protective equipment to care for patients here,” Beaupre said.
Meanwhile, as long as other facilities, like Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center or University of Utah Hospital, will accept intubated patients, St. John’s will continue its preparedness efforts, sending “all patients who require intubation to a higher level of care.”
There is no good time to weather a crisis. But in a town that teeters between spring silence and summer chaos, Beaupre takes some comfort in the timing of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although he is losing sleep over “everything,” Beaupre said it is “a good time to anticipate a surge from COVID” while the hospital has the capacity to care for patients.
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